Friday, January 15, 2016

Notes on "Old Virginia"

"Old Virginia"

Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (February 2003).

It is the first story in the hard cover, paperback, and e-book versions of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2008).

Page numbers used throughout refer to the paperback version.


Watch for these Barronisms:

  • Diesel generator
  • Whiskey
  • Dog similes
  • Chuckling
  • Caves
  • Cracks
  • Rank odors
  • Nightmares
  • Provender
  • Migraines
  • Physicists
  • Shadows behaving strangely
  • Smoking as self-medication
  • Drinking as self-medication


The title “Old Virginia” refers both to Virginia, the old crone, and the state of Virginia, the setting of the story, and the first (and oldest) British colonial possession in North America.

I fired up a Lucky Strike and congratulated my pessimistic nature. (p.1)

Lucky Strike was the top-selling cigarettes brand in the US during the 1930s, and was still being sold as of 2016. It was one of the brands included in rations provided to US soldiers in WWII.

Barron has used them in other stories to provide historical flavour.

Consider this quote from The Light is the Darkness:

the design was a relic of the Cold War, back when the KGB had teeth and CIA operatives smoked Lucky Strikes

I presume that some specific works (films, novels, short stories) make the connection between Lucky Strikes and CIA operatives, but I am not familiar with them.

The Reds had found our happy little retreat in the woods. (p.1)

During the Cold War, in the United States and elsewhere, "red" was used as a political adjective to refer to the USSR and, more broadly, to communists.

Or possibly, one of my boys was a mole. (p.1)

Agents of one intelligence agency who have infiltrated another intelligence agency are known as moles. Molehunts, as the efforts directed at finding such agents were known, were endemic in the

Central Intelligence Agency while James Jesus Angleton was head of the Counterintelligence Staff (1954-1974).

Davis swore he had heard chuckling and whispering behind the steel door after curfew. (p.1)

Chuckling is discussed more fully in the post "On Chuckling".

He also heard one of the doctors gibbering in a foreign tongue. (p.1)

To gibber is to speak rapidly and unintelligibly.

Nonsense, of course. (p.1)

This is a common trope in horror fiction: the protagonist dismisses evidence that does not fit the frame in which he presumes he is operating until it becomes impossible to do so.

"Garland? You there?" (p.1)

While there is an artist by that name, the author has stated in private correspondence that "Roger Garland" is not a reference to anyone in particular.

Hatcher was my immediate subordinate. (p.1)

If the name is a reference to a particular person, I'm not aware of it.

I passed him a cigarette. We smoked in contemplative silence. (p.1)

Nicotine is widely used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress and anxiety. Self-medication, the idea that people use substances to ease the symptoms of stress and anxiety, is frequently present in Laird's stories. Tobacco and alcohol are the most frequently used substances.

Smoking was far more common in the 1950s. Smoking prevalence in men in 1955 was 56.9%, and only 20.5% in 2013, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Richards. He didn't report any activity." (p.1)

I don’t know the name refers to a particular person.

A chill tightened the muscles in the small of my back, reminded me of how things had gone wrong during '53 in the steamy hills of Cuba. (p.1)

The Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro against the U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, started in 1953.

I was unable to find information about any overt or covert U.S. military involvement in Cuba in 1953. The operation described in this story is likely fictional, but I welcome any information to the contrary.

It had been six years, and in this business a man didn't necessarily improve with age. (pp.1-2)

The story is set in 1959. See discussion section for more about Roger Garland’s preoccupation with age.

"Strauss may have a leak." (p.2)

Strauss is a common Germanic surname. If this is a reference to a particular person, I am unaware of it.

Even so, intelligence regarding this program would carry a hefty price tag behind the Iron Curtain. (p.2)

The Iron Curtain is the line through Europe after WWII, dividing the two sides of the Cold War: the Soviet Union and its allies opposed by the United States and its allies. It "fell" in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which signalled the end of the Cold War.

Project TALLHAT was a Company job, but black ops. (p.2)

Project TALLHAT is not a real project, to the best of my knowledge. Its name may derive from the tall, pointed hats associated with witchcraft in popular culture. Whether there is a historical association is a matter of some controversy. (See “Hallucigenia” for an example of a similar hat in Laird’s stories.) The project gets a brief mention in The Light is the Darkness.

The Company refers to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Employees reportedly use that term when referring to the organization, as do insiders and those who wish others to think they are insiders.

Black ops, or black operations, are covert operations which are not attributable to the organization carrying them out, funding them, or both.

Doctors Porter and Riley called the shots. (p.2)

I don’t know if the names Porter or Riley refer to anyone in particular.

Upon return to Langley, Strauss would handle the debriefing. (p.2)

Langley, Virginia, is home to the headquarters of the CIA.

Strauss had known me since the first big war. (p.2)

The first big war is an allusion to World War I (1914-1918).

You take Robey and Neil and arc south; I'll go north with Dox and Richards. Davis will guard the cabin. (p.2)

There are 10 people in the isolated cabin in the woods: the five named above, Roger Garland, Hatcher, Doctor Porter, Doctor Riley, and the crone. If the names Dox, Robey, and Davis refer to particular people, I am not aware of it.

... at his legendary farmhouse in Langley. (p.2)

If this refers to an actual location, I am unaware of it.

Before the San Andreas Fault took root in my hands and gave them tremors. (p.3)

The San Andreas Fault forms the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. It runs partly through California. Notable earthquakes include the 1906 earthquake that caused the fire which destroyed 80% of San Francisco.

"Roger, have you ever heard of MK-ULTRA?" (p.3)

MK-ULTRA was an illegal CIA program of human experiments designed to identify means of controlling human behaviour through the use of drugs, interrogation techniques, torture, and other means. It is popularly known as the CIA mind-control program. It began in 1953 and was officially halted in 1973.

Most of the leaves had fallen in carpets of red and brown. (p.3)

According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, most leaves in Virginia have fallen by mid-November.
President Eisenhower's imminent departure. (p.3)

Dwight Eisenhower was president from 1953 to 1961, winning the 1952 and 1956 elections. He was a five-star general in the United States Army during WWII.
The trouble had started at the top with good old Ike suffering a stroke. (p.3)
Eisenhower had a mild stroke on November 25, 1957. "Ike", meant as an abbreviation of his last name, was a family nickname. It was immortalized in the 1952 campaign slogan "I like Ike".

Company loyalists closed ranks, covering up evidence of the president's diminished faculties, his strange preoccupation with drawing caricatures of Dick Nixon. (p.3)

Richard Nixon was vice-president from 1953 to 1961, and president from 1969 to 1974. I was unable to find corroboration for the claim that Eisenhower drew caricatures of Nixon, or that the stroke significantly affected his mental faculties.
I knew from the topographical maps there was a mountain not far off; a low, shaggy hump called Badger Hill. (p.4)

Badger Hill is a settlement and mine in California, and there is a Badger Hill farm in Virginia, but I could find no mountain of that name in the state. The Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, bisect the state, running SW-NE. There are abandoned coal mines in the mountainous region of the state, enough of them for the Department of Mines and Energy to provide an interactive map detailing their locations.

College instead of Korea for the lot. (p.4)

The Korean War was fought between 1950 and 1953.

They hadn't seen Soissons in 1915, Normandy in 1945, nor the jungles of Cuba in 1953. (p.4)

Soissons is a French town in the northern department of Picardy. The Battle of Soissons in 1918 was fought between the German and French armies, with American support on the French side. The United States did not join the war until 1917. Roger’s presence there in 1915 implies work for another government, or a covert operation.

Normandy is a northern region of France. The Allied invasion of German-occupied Normandy in June 1944 contributed to their victory on the Western Front. I’m not aware of a specific operation which would have required his presence in the region in 1945.

See previous note for Roger’s involvement in Cuba in 1953.

swallowed a glycerin tablet (p.4)

Nitroglycerin (C3H5N3O9), in addition to its use in the manufacture of explosives, has been used medically as a vasodilator for 130 years. It is used for the treatment of angina and other heart conditions.

Porter was lizard-bald except for a copper circlet that trailed wires into his breast pocket. (p. 4)
In many of Laird’s stories, science and magic seem to exist along a continuum. This is beautifully evoked with the copper circlet, with its echoes of protective talismans and magic circles, and its trailing wires, clear evidence of a technological purpose.

You psych boys are playing with all kinds of neat stuff—LSD, hypnosis, photokinetics. (p.5)

LSD is lysergic acid diethylamide, known colloquially as “acid” is a psychedelic drug. The CIA did study the effects of LSD in the course of their MK ULTRA research program.

Photokinesis is movement in reaction to light. In parapsychology, it is the purported ability to mentally manipulate light.
The problem is the KGB has pretty much the same programs. (p.5)
The KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti) was the Soviet Union security agency from 1954 to 1991.
You and Riley slipped through the cracks after Caltech. (p.6)

The California Institute of Technology is a private university in Pasadena, California.
The ones who thought they were testing diet pills. You gave them, what was it? Oh yes—peyote! (p.6)

Peyote is a cactus from which mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids are derived. It has a long history of ritual and recreational thanks to its psychedelic properties.

Unorthodox Applications of Medicine and Technology (p.6)

I could not find any information about this group, which may be an informal nickname, and is in any case probably fictional.

I had turned on the charm that had earned me the title "Jolly Roger,"

The iconic black flag with skull and crossbones flown by pirate ships about to attack is traditionally known as the Jolly Roger.
Shelves, cabinets, a couple boxy machines with needles and tickertape spools. Between these machines an easel with indecipherable scrawls done in ink. I recognized some as calculus symbols. (p.6)
The scientific props, here and elsewhere, serve to naturalize the supernatural elements of the story.

Approaching the figure on the bed, I was overcome with an abrupt sensation of vertigo. My hackles bunched. The light played tricks upon my senses, lending a fishbowl distortion to the old woman's sallow visage. (...) My belly quaked. (p.6-7)
Roger’s visceral reaction is interesting. The threat is perceived instinctively, reflexively, before becoming an object of conscious thought.

Hatcher kept some scotch in the pantry. Doctor Riley poured—I didn't trust my own hands yet. He lighted cigarettes. (p.7)
More self-medication.
Subject X behind the metal door (p.7)

In comic books published by Marvel Comics, Weapon X is a secret (Canadian) government project which turns individuals into superpowered weapons. The popular superhero characters Wolvering, Sabertooth, and Deadpool, among others, were the result of this project. It was first mentioned in 1974. (p.7)
You're too young to remember the first big war. (p.7)

The First World War began on 28 July 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918.

I was twenty-eight when the Germans marched into France. (p.7)

The German army entered France in August 1914. That would place Roger Garland's date of birth in 1886, which would make him 73 during the events of the story.
Graduated Rogers and Williams with full honors (p.7)

I was unable to find a college or university named “Rogers and Williams.” It could be that I’m misreading the sentence, or that the institution is fictional. If anyone can provide a clarification, I would appreciate it.

This happened before Uncle Sam decided to make an 'official' presence. (p.7)

The U.S. entered the war officially on 6 April 1917.

I helped organize the resistance, translated messages French intelligence intercepted. (p.7)
Listening for armor on the muddy road, the tramp of boots. (p.7)

These elements of Garland's story I find problematic. The Germans did not successfully invade France in WWI. The Resistance was a reaction to the German occupation of France following the 1940 armistice signed between the two countries. While tanks ("armor") were used by the Allies and Germans late in world war I, they did not see widespread use until WWII.

Three plausible explanations for these discrepancies suggest themselves:

a) Garland is mistaken. He is misremembering events that occurred during WWII.

b) Garland is not mistaken. He is relating events that occurred differently in his timeline than in ours.

c) Laird mistakenly introduced anachronistic elements into the story.
Roby had been a short order cook in college, (p.8)

This appears to be a misspelling of Robey, which is repeated on p.11.
I got a doozy of a migraine. (p.8)

A migraine is a severe, disabling headache accompanied by other neurological symptoms, including visual disturbances and photophobia.

"Migraine" is another Barronism. Exposure to “weirdness” (for lack of a better term) often results in migraines for the protagonists of Laird Barron stories. In this collection, no fewer than five protagonists experience them, while no character suffers a mundane "headaches".
They reminded me of rumors surrounding the German experiments in Auschwitz. Mengele had been fond of bizarre contraptions. (p.8)

Auschwitz was the site of a German concentration camp during WWII, in what is now Poland. It is estimated that 1.1 million prisoners died in the camp, 90% of them Jewish. The remainder being Poles, Romani, Soviets, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and others. Many were killed in the gas chambers installed there, but others succumbed to starvation, forced labour, execution, infectious diseases, and medical experiments. German doctors performed many barbaric medical experiments on the prisoners. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, who was particularly interested in identical twins and dwarfs.
He was one of the Grand Old Men of the Company. (p.8)

Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a highly respected and admired man who has had a long career in a particular field.”
Why send us to a shack in the middle of Timbuktu? (p.9)
Timbuktu is a city in the West-African country of Mali. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, it became known in Europe through legendary tales of its fabulous wealth, and it subsequently for its remoteness and mystery. It has entered popular usage as a metaphor for a faraway place.
She's a remote viewer. A clairvoyant. She draws pictures, the researchers extrapolate. (p.9)
Clairvoyance is the purported ability to gain information (often visual) through extrasensory perception. Remote viewing programs were established by the U.S. Army (Stargate Project) and the CIA (program SCANATE) in the 1970s. A 1995 report commissioned by the CIA found that it had not been proven to work, and was not used operationally. This has not discouraged writers from making hay with the possibilities implicit in such a program.
Numerous mimeographed letters and library documents comprised the file. (p.9)
A mimeograph machine produced duplicate copies of a document by forcing ink through a stencil onto a sheet of paper. It was widely used before the advent of the photocopier in the 1960s.
One such entry from A Colonial History of Carolina and Her Settlements (p.9)

This is a fictional book, as far as I can tell. Carolina refers to what are now North and South Carolina. North Carolina borders Virginia to the south.

The Lost Roanoke Colony vanished from the Raleigh Township on Roanoke Island between 1588 and 1589. The island is not far from the Virginia / North Carolina border.

The story of the Lost Roanoke Colony presented here is mostly accurate. The colony was established in 1587 by 115 men, women, and children. The first child born to the colony was Virginia Dare, grand-daughter of the Governor White mentioned in the citation.
molecular biologist, a physicist, a bona fide psychic (p.10)
Laird is again establishing the idea that the supernatural can be understood scientifically. Another interpretation would be that the intelligent supernatural entities are consciously using the bait of scientific knowledge in order to lure chosen human individuals. The theme of supernatural creatures using (scientific) curiosity to ensnare humans is one that Barron returns to with regularity. The roots of the idea are ancient (see: Garden of Eden, Faust) but the presentation is fresh.
That night I dreamt of mayhem. (p.10)
Premonitory, symbolic, and/or frightening dreams are a frequent used device in Barron’s stories. They serve a similar function to the physical reactions noted previously. For the protagonist, they are warnings from the subconscious about an upcoming danger. For the reader, they are warnings from the author that the character is in danger. From a practical standpoint, dreams are useful for introducing information which the protagonist and the reader would otherwise be denied.

On the sixth morning my unhappy world raveled. (p.10)
The events unfold at a pace dictated by the antagonist. She is in complete control of the situation from the start.
The rank odor oozing from him would have gagged a goat. (p.11)

Rank: having a strong, unpleasant smell. (Merriam-Webster) Horror and disgust are difficult to dissociate. Unpleasant smells are also bound up in the concept of corruption, both physical and metaphysical.
Oh God! She rode us all night—oh Christ! (p.13)

This is a suggestive image. See discussion for more details.

Betrayed by that devil Strauss? Sure, he was Machiavelli with a hard-on. (p.13)

The irony in the first statement is that, while this is in many ways the story of a Faustian bargain, Strauss is playing the part of Faust, not the devil.

Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance politician, diplomat, historian, and writer. He is remembered for his book The Prince in which he laid out the principles by which a ruler could retain power, through calculated and occasionally immoral means.

Nor did I dream of walking through the black winter of Dresden surrounded by swirling flakes of ash. (p.15)

Dresden is a city in eastern Germany. In February 1945, it was bombed with high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices by British and American planes. The bombing and the resultant firestorm destroyed the city centre and killing an estimated 22-25 thousand people.
A great hole opened in the ground before them. It stank of carrion. (p.15)

Caves and fissures are a recurring motif in mythology and folklore, where they are frequently openings leading to other worlds. Here the hole leads to an otherworldly creature, and its “opening” is suggestive of the opening jaws of a predator, or the opening of a trap or snare.
At least a hundred men, women and children. (p.15)
The number tallies well with the missing Roanoke colonists (115). The historical record is silent about their ultimate fate. While death from starvation or assimilation into local tribes are likelier, Laird provides this glimpse at an alternative possibility.
Who are you? I asked as several portions of her shadow elongated from the central axis, dipped as questing tendrils. Then, a dim, wet susurration. I thought of pitcher plants grown monstrous and shut my eyes tight. (p.15)
A tendril is the thin spirally coiling stem of a climbing plant that attaches to walls, fences, etc. (Merriam-Webster)

A susurration is a whispering sound, a murmur. (Merriam-Webster)

A pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant with a prey-trapping mechanism filled with digestive fluid.
Mother wants to meet you. Such a vital existence you have pursued! Not often does She entertain provender as seasoned as yourself. If you're lucky, the others will have sated Her. She will birth you as a new man. A man in Her image. You'll get old, yes. Being old is a wonderful thing, though. The older you become, the more things you taste. The more you taste, the more pleasure you experience. There is so much pleasure to be had. (p.16)
There is a lot to unpack in this paragraph. Given that many of the other stories in the collection will expand on these ideas, and that I’ll be looking at a few of them in the discussion, I’ll simply flag it and move on.

Provender is an evocative Barronism. It is a dated term which refers to food for livestock or domestic animals, synonymous with “feed”. It is derived from medieval latin prebendia (a stipend allotted to someone) and providere (to provide). Barron gives it a sinister context: we can infer that Mother is a creature for which food is provided on a regular basis. It reduces humans to the humble role of nutrients. It is quite simply a dehumanizing term.

You know who Mother is—a colonist wrote Her name on the palisade, didn't he? A name given by white explorers to certain natives who worshipped Her. (p.16)
We can infer that CROATOAN is Mother’s name. This raises a host of questions about language and culture in non-human sentient beings, but we will have to wait for answers.

I was the first Christian birth in the New World. (p.16)
See previous note on Virginia.

Mother is quite simple, actually. She has basic needs . . . (p.16)

This idea is developed further in subsequent stories. I’ll pause here only to draw attention to the idea, which seems significant.

All (known) organisms share certain physiological needs: metabolic needs (air, water, and food in animals; CO2, sunlight, water in plants), security needs, and reproductive needs being the most important. Organisms with any degree of cognitive ability have evolved a positive feedback mechanism: satisfying these needs (and others) produces a sensation of pleasure and/or relief. Whatever else we can say about Virginia and Mother, we can say that pleasure is a motivating factor.
"Do you suppose men invented chess? I promise you, there are contests far livelier. (p.16)
Chess is a two-player game which uses a board and 32 pieces in two colours. Each player has a king, a queen, 2 rooks, 2 knights, 2 bishops, and 8 pawns, which are weaker pieces and therefore considered expendable. The object of the game is to capture the opposing player’s king. The game is believed to have been invented in India sometime between 280-550.

I don’t think Virginia is claiming that the game was taught to humans by Mother and her kin, but rather that games and contests, as a concept, predate humanity. Chess is being used here to stand in for a category.

Chess is a two-player game, and one naturally wonders whether the game Mother is playing similarly has two opposing sides, or more, and whom she is playing against. No answers are forthcoming in this story.
The dinosaurs couldn't do it in a hundred million years. Nor the sharks in their oceans given three times that. (p.17)

Dinosaurs were a diverse group of reptiles which were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years (200 to 65 million years ago). Sharks are a group of cartilaginous fish, the earliest of which evolved between 450 and 300 million years ago. The implication seems to me that Mother and/or her kin have been around for at least that long, and that individual animals of those species were also co-opted by her/them for her/their purposes (but proved to be of little “use”).

Contemplating deep time can induce wonder and vertigo, and the “time abyss” has long been a staple of genre fiction. It is used to disorienting effect here by presenting an intelligent creature of an unknown type which has been around for 100 times longer than our species has existed.
With subtle guidance they—you—can return this world to the paradise it was when the ice was thick and the sun dim. (p.17)

There have been at least five major ice ages over the earth’s history, outside of which the planet was ice-free at all latitudes. The earliest known was 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago, followed by more recent episodes (720 to 635 million years ago, 450 to 420 million years ago, 360 to 260 million years ago), and ending with the one in which we currently find ourselves (since 2.58 million years ago). Within the major ice ages, ice coverage have varied considerably, with severe glacial periods and milder interglacial periods.

The sun’s luminosity has increased roughly 30% over its 4.54 billion year history, and will increase by another 68% over the next 4.8 billion years. The difference in luminosity does not account for the major ice ages, however, and it’s unclear what period Mother (through Virginia) could be referring to. Large volcanic and impact events can throw up dust and debris into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of sunlight which passes through it, and lowering the surface temperature. These are referred to as volcanic and impact winter, respectively, and the earth has endured these multiple times, but their duration is short (2 to 3 years).

We need men like Adolph,

This is undoubtedly a reference to Adolph Hitler. Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, and a main player in the events of WWII and the Holocaust.
Men who would bring the winter darkness so they might caper around bonfires. (p.17)

Nuclear winter, the analogue to volcanic/impact winter, which would likely result from a nuclear war, is what I believe is being alluded to. Unfortunately for Mother, the effects on sun luminosity on the surface would be relatively short-lived.
Hiroshima bloomed upon my mind's canvas (p.17)
Hiroshima, a city on Japan’s Honshu island, was hit with a nuclear bomb dropped by United States Air Force on August 6, 1945.

and Verdun, (p.17)

Verdun is a city in northeast France. It was the site of a major battle in WWI. Fought from February to December 1916, it was one of the bloodiest battlefields in history, with casualties estimated at 750 000.

I got as far as CRO before Virginia came and rode me into the woods to meet her mother. (p.17)

A final indignity to further dehumanize Roger and, by extension, humanity.


Roger Garland is representative of a certain type of Barron protagonist: male, no longer young, hardboiled, defined by his work, action-oriented, doomed. He remains a man of action to the end. Unfortunately, those actions are largely futile. He’s involved in a game he can’t win, simply because he’s not one of the players. He’s a piece that is no longer useful, and which has been sacrificed.

The story can easily be read as vampire tale, especially if divorced from the context provided by the other stories in this collection. Virginia and Mother have characteristics which are traditionally associated with vampirism: feeding on live humans, circular wounds on the victim, mesmerism, shape-changing, and other supernatural abilities. Mother's aversion to light and ability to corrupt humans, transforming them into agents which serve her agenda, are supportive of this reading.

Virginia herself is clearly an "Old Hag" ("mare" or "nightmare") from Germanic and English folklore, an evil spirit that sat on a sleeper's chest and sent them terrifying dreams. The condition of sleep paralysis, a terrifying state in which a subject is awake but unable to breathe or move, was associated with the Old Hag. A sufferer was said to be "hagridden". Roger’s nightmares begin after his meeting with Virginia. Dr. Riley claims that she rode Dr. Porter and him all night, and we witness her riding Dox and Roger like steeds.

(Image: John Henry Fuselli, The Nightmare)

While drawing on folklore, the story derives its scares from an attempt to demythify those creatures, providing a naturalistic explanation for their existence, and setting them squarely in the modern world. The monsters are established as physical rather than transcendent beings, existing within history, and interacting in specific and consistent ways. Mother’s influence is limited by geography, scientific devices are used to block or limit it. Significantly, scientists are involved in studying it. This story is the first of several which feature this specific type of alien intelligence, and we will have the opportunity to see how their depiction evolves.

There is the distinct possibility that the strange elements of the story, as related by Roger, are the product of an MK ULTRA experiment. Roger and his men, isolated in the Virginia woods, and under the supervision of two CIA doctors, are the subjects of the experiment, and Virginia herself is either a prop or a delusion. The object of the experiment remains unclear. Without the broader context of Laird’s other stories, this is certainly the most realistic reading of the story.

Old Virginia can also be read as a story about aging. Roger fears he may be over the hill, unable to perform both physically and mentally. Early in the story, he expresses concern about being displaced in his agency (CIA) by a new breed men (Richards), whose methods and goals he finds repulsive.

In addition to the physical deterioration, he worries about his mental faculties. The most horrifying element of the story, in any reading, is alluded to near the end. Roger defiantly tells Virginia that he is a patriot, and that he, at least, would not betray himself or humanity. He quickly realizes that this resolve may not be sufficient.

On its heels arrived the notion that perhaps I would change my mind after a conversation with Mother.

In an ironic echo, he faces in the end the loss of his agency (volition) to a new breed of man (Virginia).

He sees it coming but lacks the will to prevent this by taking his own life.

We're left with the sobering thought that we, like Roger, may also one day be reduced to a shell of our former selves. Strokes, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and other conditions will rob some of us of our cognitive faculties, and our volition, in the end. The writing is on the wall.


On a final note, it is interesting to consider to what extent we are horrified by the behaviour of Virginia and Mother, who treat humans instrumentally, reducing them to meat, transportation, labour, and entertainment, since this is fundamentally the way that humans behave towards non-human animals.

These notes are necessarily incomplete, and may contain mistakes of fact or interpretation. If you have information you would like to add, find mistakes you would like me to correct, or disagree with my interpretation, please comment on the post to let me know.



  1. This was the first Laird Barron story I chanced upon online and it opened my eyes to the new strain of highly effective horror fiction gaining ground at around the same time, especially from the likes of John Langan and Gemma Files. To my mind, 'Old Virginia' encapsulates the appeal of Laird's cosmic horror fiction - it's a masterclass in slowly-ratcheted tension, with a classic final line that's both open-ended and unambiguous. I re-read this not long ago and I reckon it still stands among his best works, purely because it's so neatly crafted.

  2. Not a comment but a "thank you"! Stefan Rudnicki`s reading of Frontier Deathsong has long been a favourite of mine but I didn`t know about the Shiva reading! Keep up the good work Yves. :)

    1. .....correction: Dave Robison did the "Frontier Deathsong" audio on Nightmare magazine.

  3. Are you paying over $5 / pack of cigarettes? I'm buying my cigarettes at Duty Free Depot and this saves me over 60% from cigs.